‘Hijack,’ with Idris Elba, is a throwback thriller
By Chris Vognar
A few years ago, writer-producer George Kay was commuting by train from his home in London to France, where he was working on the series “Lupin.” Suddenly, as the train went through a tunnel under the English Channel, it stopped. Kay, ever the writer, put his imagination and anxiety to work.
“I looked around at the different passengers, and I thought, ‘Well, how would we cope as a group of people in this compartment if there was some serious sort of incident going on?’” he recalled. “Is the guy who works out and looks tough in his suit going to be any more useful to us than the two little old ladies who are doing the crossword down the row?”
Thus the seed was planted for “Hijack,” a seven-part thriller that premiered last Wednesday on Apple TV+. The limited series stars Idris Elba (who is also an executive producer) as Sam, a corporate negotiator flying home from Dubai, United Arab Emirates, to London when his flight is taken over by a group of armed thugs. Created by Kay and director Jim Field Smith, it unfolds in real time over the course of the seven-hour flight, toggling back and forth from the drama in the air to the strategy and panic on the ground, where law enforcement, air traffic controllers and politicians try to stay one step ahead of impending disaster.
Led by Sam, who quietly and quickly puts his negotiating skills to use (he explains to one of the hijackers that he is trying to ensure a better outcome for everyone), the passengers constitute a sort of social experiment. Rich and poor, young and old, of multiple ethnicities, they form a cross-section of society. They’re stuck with one another, for seven hours anyway, and they may or may not make it out alive.
“Air travel is a leveler even without a hijack,” said Smith, the director. “When you step onto an airplane, you might be turning left as Sam does into first class. But ultimately, you’re all in a metal tube defying physics. All each of you has got to go on is your perceptions of what that person next to you is or does based on what they look like.”
A series like “Hijack” necessarily plays differently now than it would have before 9/11, which forever changed the way we think about the possible outcomes when a plane is seized in midair. When the possibility of a passenger revolt emerges, it is hard not to think of “United 93,” the 2006 film about the passengers of one of the 9/11 flights, who took matters into their own hands.
The series acknowledges these viewer expectations but subverts them from the start. The hijackers are all English; one of them is a woman. When one starts barking orders in Arabic, Sam quickly deduces that he is merely trying to communicate with passengers on a plane that just took off from Dubai. The question of what the hijackers want lingers well into the series, though their concerns appear more avaricious than ideological.
Elba is aware of where viewers’ minds will likely go.
“There’s no way post-9/11 that anyone can make any sort of drama on a flight or on a plane that doesn’t evoke our emotional memory around that time and how the world has changed since, and certainly the world of aviation,” he said. “But the series also bolsters the idea that thrillers are thrillers. Whether it takes place in a church or a bank, it’s about humans, at the end of the day. It’s about our handling of situations.”
Sam is no action hero, and “Hijack” is no “Passenger 57,” the 1992 movie in which Wesley Snipes plays an airline security expert who goes Rambo on midair terrorists. Sam is more inclined to think and talk than punch and shoot. His life is a shambles; we learn almost immediately that his wife (Christine Adams) is seeing a police officer (Max Beesley) back in London. Sam wears his pensiveness on his face.
“I wanted to make sure that it was about his intellect and his thinking and his vulnerability and Achilles’ heel, which is his family,” Elba said. “He already has lost his family by the time he gets on the plane, but he is obsessed with wanting to get home.
“I didn’t want to play the tough guy or the hero,” he continued. “I wanted him to be quite weak and fragile.”
As the passengers and crew fret for their lives in the air, chaos erupts on the ground from Dubai to London. Politicians pass the buck back and forth. Representatives of other countries consider shooting the plane down as it flies over their airspace. The criminal masterminds, including a sneering Simon McBurney, coordinate their next moves. The gears keep moving, all in real time.
Among the faces in the crowd is an air traffic controller played by Eve Myles. When we meet her, she’s trying desperately to get her son to school on time and running late for work. Then she steps into the belly of the beast, where she remains for the duration.
“She seems to be the Everyman, the normal person who has to control this extraordinary situation in the sky through technology from the ground,” Myles said. “What turned me on about her was her humanity and her normalness, how broken in the real world she is and how that bleeds into this thriller.”
The shoot, understandably, could get tense. Archie Panjabi, who plays a counterterrorism officer, recalled that Smith did his best to keep the set loose. At one point, in an effort to digest one of the series’s many dialogue-heavy scenes on the ground, the cast turned to song and dance between takes.
“We made a little number to it,” Panjabi said, on the same interview call as Elba. “We just got a little bit carried away to just keep the energy.”
“‘Hijack: The Musical,’ coming soon,” Elba quipped.
For all of its modern touches — the realistic diversity, the hero’s cerebral nature and psychological torment — there is something old-fashioned about the appeal of “Hijack.” The collaboration of complete strangers under immense pressure recalls Sidney Lumet’s “12 Angry Men” (1957). The clock’s relentless ticking toward disaster and the mad, mass scramble to prevent the worst outcome bring to mind “Fail Safe” (1964, also directed by Lumet).
This throwback quality was a big draw for Elba. Proud of the show, he knows that won’t mean much if people don’t watch. He wants viewers to know that this harrowing experience, which would be the ultimate nightmare in real life, is actually rather fun on screen.
“For me, it’s really well-done escapism,” he said. “It’s intelligent, and I think that it’s relatable hopefully for a lot of people. We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel; it’s just really good, clever storytelling with compelling characters.”
Panjabi agrees. She recalled that her agent initially sent her scripts for the first three episodes to gauge her interest. She tore through them and immediately asked if she could see the rest. Concerned, her agent asked if she was having doubts.
No, Panjabi recalled telling her: “I just need to know what happens to the passengers.”